The dugout canoe and the smoky bark pavilions of the benighted Siwash are long gone from the shore of Puget Sound. So is Chinook jargon, the forgotten trade language of the Northwest coast, with which the white settler dealt for a land of rain-dimpled tidewater, matchless rivers and dark fir jungles. The fir has been pushed back by farms, by smoking cities, by nets of concrete highway. The streams have been fished and refished for a century. But last week the steelhead—the great, winter-running sea trout of the north Pacific—were swarming into western Washington rivers in schools such as were never seen even in the day of the Indian.
It seemed like a miracle to Washington's dedicated and multiplying clan of winter stream fishermen. The greatest steelhead run of all time was materializing, not only despite the encroachments of civilization but despite the fact that fishing pressure in the Northwest, as elsewhere in the U.S., has doubled and redoubled since World War II. The fish were bigger as well as more plentiful; 15 years ago, when only a relative handful of men braved December, January and February weather, for them an average fish weighed from six to 10 pounds. This year most steelhead (10,000 of them were caught on opening day alone) have been running from 15 to 28 pounds.
This fabulous renaissance on the Green, the Skagit, the Stillaguamish, the Puyallup and dozens of other coastal rivers is due almost entirely to a profane and overwhelmingly enthusiastic ex-football player named Clarence Pautzke, who has devoted himself to steelhead with single-minded passion for almost 20 years as chief biologist for the Washington State Game Commission. The stocking program by which he has made it possible may very well prove to be the most spectacular development in the centuries-old history of artificial propagation; its success implies that even more fantastic fishing is quite possible, that Northwest streams can be filled, perhaps every month of the year, with almost limitless numbers of enormous, seagoing trout.
February 7, 1955
If so, some of the credit will belong to the steelhead itself, for only a man under the curious spell which the big fish casts on anglers would have persisted year after year in the face of the discouragements and difficulties which Pautzke has faced. The steelhead is a rainbow trout, with all the rainbow's dash, fire and propensity for aerial acrobatics, but it is a rainbow with a difference. When it is two years old or about 7½ inches long it heads downstream (steelhead run in streams all the way from Alaska to California's Sacramento River) and out into the Pacific. After it returns, usually in a little less than two years, to spawn, it has turned bright silver and has grown to enormous size.
Few fish are harder to hook and harder to hold than the inspired steelhead and it must often be pursued in freezing weather when the streams are low, when mountains stand icily against the sky, when the hands ache and grow numb with cold and the line comes to the reel stiff and white with rime. But even the fishless steelheader seems to glory in his martyrdom, and the man who has felt the awesome surge of a steelhead's downstream rush, has endured the aching sight of a steelhead's flashing leaps and has landed it, is changed for life.
Pautzke's moment of revelation came exactly 21 years ago on the Skykomish River—he hooked and landed a seven-pound female steelhead, a fish whose every combative eccentricity he still remembers with excited clarity. He went on fishing all that winter, but never saw another steelhead and by spring was full of an indignant feeling that the world deserved more of so wonderful a commodity. He set out to do something about it—and in doing so found a goal toward which he has been groping during most of his life.
As a boy in the town of Auburn, Wash. he had been fascinated by a near-by trout hatchery and when he went to the University of Washington he enrolled, without really knowing why, in the School of Fisheries. He was a tough and burly youth who played end on the football team, toiled as a boilermaker's helper during the summer and earned tuition money by working weekends as a bouncer in a Seattle dance hall.
He often came to science classes black and blue from midnight combat and the rigors of biology almost killed him—and his teachers. Once, after surveying him carefully, the head of the school suggested in a tired voice that he switch to the field of physical education, like the rest of the University's muscle men. Pautzke refused. "I still can't pronounce ichthyology," he confesses, "but I wanted that degree."
Even when he got it, however, the world seemed more interested in his back than in his mind. The state gave him a $70-a-month job as a game warden and set him to work in midsummer heat hauling sacks of feed to camps in the steep Cascade Range wilderness. "My God," he cried in protest, "if they're going to pay me and work me like a mule I'm going to go around like one." He took off his clothes and resumed his toil in hairy nakedness. And as a law enforcement officer he was capable of being carried away by his own enthusiasms—once, after catching a man illegally shooting bufflehead ducks, he grew so excited at the hunting prospects that he grabbed his victim by the arm and said: "Come on—let's shoot ourselves a passel of those little bastards." When the game commission finally gave him a job as a biologist he did not abandon his unorthodox ways.
He grandly ignored the fact that he had not been hired as a policy maker. He rebelled against the idea of stocking streams with small trout when—or so he raptly believed—it was possible to cheaply stock thousands of big ones. He believed that in stocking steelhead it might be possible to ignore one awful limiting factor which has hampered fish culturists since the beginning—that there is just so much feed in any given stream or lake and that they will support just so many fish.
STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE
The steelhead, Pautzke reasoned, gets its growth at sea where feed is limitless. It is so fat and strong once it returns to its home stream it can go for months on a starvation diet, and like the Atlantic salmon it returns to the sea after spawning to eat and grow again. A steelhead spawned naturally in the gravel beds of a river is subject, it is true, to all the trials and difficulties of other trout, for it must struggle for existence in the stream for two years before it grows large enough to migrate. But what if steelhead eggs were artificially hatched and the tiny fish were raised and fed in rearing ponds until they were big enough for the downstream journey? Wouldn't they go to sea immediately? And, if so, why couldn't they be stocked, literally by the millions, and still be expected to return huge and full of fight after their ocean sojourn?
The answer, time has proved, is a stirring one: an astounding 15% come back, no matter how many are planted. But the answer was a long time in coming. When Pautzke began his crusade, the life cycle of the steelhead was a mystery. With another biologist named Robert Meigs (who has worked with him throughout the steelhead program) he spent years simply learning the basic facts of the big trout's existence. In 1939, however, he planted a crop of tagged 7½-inch fish in the Green River (its catch has risen from 1,800 to 12000 fish since) and, in 1940, got big fish back.
But Pautzke still had a long way to go. For one thing, World War II intervened and he went into the Navy as a chief petty officer. For another, Pautzke decided he had to change the habits and philosophy of all the trout fishermen in the state. "A lot of people had sentimental ideas about fishing a babbling stream and catching little 6- to 9-inch rainbow or brook trout. We were developing a put-and-take fishery. I wanted to concentrate on steelhead and let nature pay for rearing big fish instead." He also wanted—despite vehement opposition—to keep fishermen off streams until June because his little steelhead went downstream in April and May and were being hooked by the thousands on the way.
To lure the stream fishermen away from his babies he saw to it that 10- to 15-inch trout were stocked in scores of lakes. He made endless speeches. He was heckled. One night he saw red. He took off his coat. "All right, you guys!" he bellowed. "I may not be any damn good as a speaker but I can fight. If you don't listen, every damned one of you is going to find it out. Now either shut up or take off your coats and line up." Silence fell. He spoke. He was cheered.
Meanwhile, in an old rainbow trout hatchery on Chambers Creek near Tacoma, Pautzke and Co. were not only raising tens of thousands of baby steelhead but developing bigger and bigger strains of fish. In 1950 he planted seven rivers. In 1953 he planted 760,000 7½-inch fingerlings in 35 rivers. Last year he dumped a million small steelheads into the same streams. The results were electrifying.
The winter steelheader hunts his fish in deep runs of water which move at the speed of a walking man—three or four miles an hour. He must do so at long range—by casting a hook imbedded in a clot of salmon eggs or a round red wood and metal lure known as a cherry bobber across the stream and letting it drift gently on the bottom in a long arc. It is a frustrating process, for the steelhead usually stops the bait gently rather than striking it. Endless rocks and snags stop it too and the sensations are similar; when the fish were few, men sometimes invested years of patient misery in learning to hook and land one. But in the last two years old-time fishermen have sometimes gained the impression that the fish were hungrily stalking them.
In 1947-48 a total of 18,964 fishermen caught 22,757 steelhead. Last year, fired by the news of Pautzke's silvery bonanza, 89,350 fishermen thronged the streams. They were rewarded by 162,550 big trout. This year more than 100,000 people have caught the craze; by the end of this month they will probably have caught 200,000 fish. Last week in western Washington the steelhead was a hotter topic of conversation than Marilyn Monroe, the University of Washington basketball team or the murder of Serge Rubinstein. The state legislature talked excitedly of naming a "state fish"—the steelhead. The State of Oregon and the Province of British Columbia were preparing to follow in Pautzke's footsteps.
But if Pautzke has his way all this will be remembered as simply the beginning. He has stocked only 40 of the 144 coastal streams which he believes fit for steelhead and has used only a fraction of the millions of fish he would love to rear and release. He has not yet begun trying to build up summer runs of steelhead (which will take a fly) or to test his theory that they can be brought to the rivers all year round. "I hope they catch every fish that comes in this year," he cried last week. "There'll be more next year. We could plant 20 million of them. I'd like to put a million in the Cedar River alone—people would go nuts. I'm just a big, dumb, bullheaded bohunk Polack but, by God, how I love to get those big fish in the rivers."
WASHINGTON'S STEELHEAD EMPIRE